After recently released police body cam footage showed officers arresting her 8-year-old son and attempting to place him in handcuffs, a Florida mother has filed a federal lawsuit alleging civil and disability rights violations. According to the family’s attorney, the school had an individualized education program in place for the boy who suffers from emotional and behavioral disabilities but failed to inform his substitute teacher that day.
On December 14, 2018, officers from the Key West Police Department responded to a call from Gerald Adams Elementary School concerning an 8-year-old student who allegedly punched a teacher in the chest. According to the arrest report, the teacher ordered the child to sit correctly in his cafeteria seat before telling him to sit next to her. He reportedly refused and told her to not to put her hands on him before punching her in the chest.
“At eight years old, 3.5 ft tall, and 64 lbs., this little boy didn’t pose a threat to anyone,” one of the family’s attorneys, Ben Crump, said in a statement on Monday. “He had an IEP in place because his disabilities demanded special support by his school – a plan intended to make sure his educational experience was appropriate for him.
“Instead of honoring and fulfilling that plan, the school placed him with a substitute teacher who had no awareness or concern about his needs and who escalated the situation by using her hands to forcibly move him. When he acted out, the teacher called the police, who threatened him with jail and tried to put him in handcuffs, which fell off because he was too little.
“This is a heartbreaking example of how our educational and policing systems train children to be criminals by treating them like criminals – if convicted, the child in this case would have been a convicted felon at eight years old. This little boy was failed by everyone who played a part in this horrific incident.”
In the police body cam video, one of the officers informs the boy that he is going to jail before frisking him against the wall. The child continues to cry as the officer attempts to cuff his wrists, but the handcuffs are too large to be effective.
The officer tells the student, “You understand this is very serious, OK? I hate that you had to put me into this position to do this. The thing about it is, you made a mistake. Now it’s time for you to learn about it and to grow from it, not repeat the same mistake again.”
According to the boy’s mother, he was taken to a juvenile justice facility in Key West where officers took a DNA sample, his fingerprints, and a mug shot photo. Although the boy was initially arrested on felony battery charges in order to scare him straight, the charges were later dropped.
On Monday, Key West Police Chief Sean Brandenburg released the following statement: “Based on the report, standard operating procedures were followed.”
“My son has a disability and the authorities tried to make him a criminal,” Bianca N. Digennaro stated in a recent interview. “I’m here for my son, because I refuse to let them make him a convicted felon at the age of 8, just because he was having a mental breakdown.”
Digennaro has confirmed that her attorneys have filed a federal lawsuit alleging civil and disability rights violations. Defendants named in the lawsuit include the police officers who arrested her son and school staff involved in the incident along with the Monroe County School District and the city of Key West.